We all get stressed out sometimes, or even a lot of the time. Stress, by itself, is not a problem – it’s the same inbuilt human reaction that made our ancient ancestors run away from things that wanted to eat them, or to fight when they had to.
Life is full of stuff that stresses us out: work, family life, money… But how do we know when stress is reaching a point that could make us ill? Here are some tell-tale signs that stress could be leading to depression or anxiety:
- You’re not sleeping, and/or you always feel tired.
- You’re constantly lurching from one thing to the next.
- You’re always tense, worried or anxious.
- You’re getting headaches every day.
- You’ve stopped looking after yourself, and you’re not allowing any time to relax or recover.
- You’re run down and getting a string of illnesses.
- You feel overwhelmed.
- You can’t switch off or wind down.
- You’re not looking forward to anything any more.
- You feel irritable.
- You snap at people or get more emotional than usual.
- You feel vague, forgetful or indecisive.
If you’ve been experiencing stress for a prolonged period, there’s more danger of it leading to a mental health problem. That’s what happened to me towards the end of 2009 – I’d never experienced depression until then, but it has since proved a persistent thorn in my side. I’ve experienced all of the above symptoms. I still experience some of them, but now I recognise them and have some ways of managing them. I’m better at some things than others, and keep learning new ways of coping and looking after myself.
We need to stop stress before it stops us.
There are three important things I need to remember, and maybe these will help you too:
- You’re not alone. Mental health problems are very common, and there are people you can talk to, and who can support you.
- It won’t always be like this. You can get better, and you can manage the symptoms.
- There’s no shame in getting help. It’s not weak – it’s stronger to do something about a problem than to let it keep beating you. See your GP, see a counsellor, take the medication – different things work for different people. The important thing is to do something. Ignoring it is not dealing with it.
Stress, depression and anxiety are very convincing liars, and will tell you that you’re fine and should keep soldiering on. But be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you don’t make changes, and if you carry on doing the same things that have got you to this point, how can you expect to get any better? It’s like breaking your arm and then repeatedly smacking it against hard objects, expecting it to magically cure itself.
Here are some other small tips:
- Plan some time for yourself. Think about things you enjoy doing, and allow yourself a chance to do them. It’s not selfish to put yourself first sometimes – sacrificing your health to please other people isn’t really helping anyone.
- Tell someone. It’s the first step towards getting better. Don’t let your problems silently stalk you from the shadows like a bully – expose them.
- Take care over how you speak to yourself. Don’t put yourself down or apologise for things that aren’t your fault. If you’re beating yourself up or always criticising yourself, that adds to a feeling that you’re not good enough and that you have to keep striving and ‘going the extra mile’. Learn to accept that ‘good enough’ is perfectly fine the vast majority of the time.
- Getting out into nature helps me – it gives me a positive distraction, some exercise and fresh air, and some perspective.
There are more things I’ve learned in this blog post.
What doesn’t help?
Here are some things that people might say to someone who’s experiencing a mental health problem:
- Be strong.
- Keep a stiff upper lip.
- Grit your teeth and get on with it.
- We never used to complain.
- Don’t make such a fuss.
- Just have a drink or two.
- Cheer up.
- Just relax.
- Man up.
People might mean well when they say things like this, but guess what? None of these things will reduce anyone’s stress. None of these things makes a mental health problem go away.
In fact, these sayings, attitudes and beliefs cause harm – people bury how they feel and avoid talking or getting the help they need because they don’t want to seem weak. They don’t want to be judged or pitied. By not getting help, we might suffer worse and longer – and that can have tragic consequences.
It shouldn’t be considered brave to talk openly about mental health problems, but it still is. The fear is real. The stigma persists. That’s why we still need to raise awareness through things like Mental Health Awareness Week.